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My Interview with Michael Shermer

On Sunday, February 18, 2018, I did a podcast interview with Michael B. Shermer, a well known author on issues related to science and religion (the one I most recently read: The Science of Good and Evil), based on my new book: The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. The interview is part of the Science Salon series, number eighteen. Dialogues are hosted by Michael Shermer and presented by The Skeptics Society, in California.

Dr. Michael B. Shermer holds a graduate degree in experimental psychology. He is a historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. Shermer engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he emphasizes scientific skepticism

Among other things in this interview we discuss the modern atheism movement, religion and politics, the intractable problem of evil, the early understandings of Jesus (how could he be both man and God?), the beliefs of ancient pagans about the gods and the afterlife, the message early Christians proclaimed to pagans in order to convert them, and lots of other topics.

To see more about the book, go to http://www.bartdehrman.com/the-triumph-of-christianity/

Audiobook excerpt link: https://soundcloud.com/simonschuster/the-triumph-of-christianity

Learn more about Science Salon: https://www.skeptic.com/lectures/science-salon/

Dr. Michael B. Shermer holds a graduate degree in experimental psychology at the California State University, Fullerton. He is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. Shermer engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he emphasizes scientific skepticism.

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Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation
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  1. Avatar
    jbskq5  February 23, 2018

    I really enjoyed this conversation, and I’m greatly enjoying your new book! Thank you for posting.

  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  February 23, 2018

    Others may be also interested in your interview at https://www.acast.com/historyofthepapacy/st60-talkingaboutthebiblewithbartehrman

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 23, 2018

    Great to see and hear Bart Ehrman. Of the twenty outstanding books by Dr. Ehrman I’ve read (and proudly own), this one is the best. Trust me! … Steve Sutter

  4. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 23, 2018

    Thanks for sharing this. (Otherwise I might have missed it.)

  5. Avatar
    RVBlake  February 23, 2018

    Great conversation. I was surprised and amused toward the end when you informed Shermer that the pagans had no notion of an afterlife till the Christians “helpfully” informed them of it, and of the ramifications of not Believing. Sounds like the Christians relieved the pagans of their happiness.

  6. Avatar
    RoddyN  February 23, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Just received the book and look forward to it after I just finished How Jesus Became God. I had a quick question and I hope it does not turn into an episode of sorts. In both books (and I know the latter is true because JP Holding is writing a critique against your new work on CADRE), you hold to the idea that the apostles and Paul believe or thought (however you want to put it) they saw the risen Christ. For many apologist, they take this as ammunition to bolster their claims of Christianity. I have to be honest, of all the skepticism I have about the other issues, I am not sure what to do with this one.

    You kind of went into this in other posts related to visions and so forth. I suppose I have to wonder why Paul thought he saw what he did, and why did the apostles believe the same thing. I have trouble putting into context or really making sense of what they may have experienced. It then makes me wonder if perhaps there is something to the premise of Christianity.

    How do you reconcile this, or rather, what lead you to believe there is not much stock whatever it is these gents experienced?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2018

      I have a long discussion of this in How Jesus Became God, where I talk about what we know about visionary experiences based on psychological research.

      • Avatar
        RoddyN  February 25, 2018

        Okay, I did read it. I just was not sure if you were personally committed to that idea or if you were merely providing it as a possibility for the reader.


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    seahawk41  February 23, 2018

    Nice discussion! Shermer is another of my favorite writers.

    I’ve mentioned that I am a physicist. Beginning in the 1970s there has been this thing among those who teach physics re exponential growth and how people just don’t understand it at all. So there has been a lot of effort to tackle this in intro physics classes. Beyond that is the fact that, as you point out, exponential growth cannot go on forever. That leads to the “S” curve that has exponential growth to begin with, then exponential slowing till there is zero growth. This occurs in a multitude of situations.

    My other comment is that I am most of the way through your new book and have found it to be very informative. I had not thought of early Christianity in terms of exponential growth, but it makes very good sense. Likewise, you have clarified for me the role of Constatine in Christianity; I think I had the gut level feeling/belief that he made all the difference. Now I realize that he was important to the world we have now, but that Christianity would likely have triumphed even if he had not converted. Great stuff!!

    • Avatar
      ardeare  February 26, 2018

      Within Christianity, exponential growth can go on forever. It requires beings becoming spiritual with no need to consume natural resources. If we were to venture into natural resources, it would require a continuing planetary population throughout this and infinite other universes. Planet by planet by planet.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  February 24, 2018

    Great conversation. Any chance you’ll be doing Sam Harris’ podcast?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2018

      I’ve tried to get on it, but to no avail! He is probably not so interested in this particular topic.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  February 25, 2018

        Probably, but I’m sure Harris will be very interested in your next book topic.

  9. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  February 24, 2018

    N.F.F.N.S.N.C. I love it!

  10. Avatar
    madmargie  February 24, 2018

    I just finished your new book, Excellent!

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    Jacqueline3  February 24, 2018

    Interesting discussion.

    One issue not alluded to was the belief that the “end times” was just around the corner. It was obviously a reason why Jesus and Paul risked their lives to spread their respective messages. Without it, there would have been no urgency or missionary impulse.

    So it must have been a factor in the spread of the Jesus movement in the early years.

    Naturally, as time passed and nothing happened even as the first generation or two died away, this idea lost its effectiveness.

    3 questions:
    1. How important was the idea of “end times” to the very early Christians? (the first 2 generations, say 60 years up to 90 AD)
    2. At what point can you confidently say that “end times” thinking was no longer used by early Christian apologists? (obviously something like it resurfaced regularly among Christian millenarians well up to the Middle Ages)
    3. Given the failure of the “end times” to materialize between 30-90 AD, was this ever used by pagans as an argument against the spread of Christianity? How could the early apologists ignore this issue?

    You may have answered these questions in your book which I have not yet read. If so, please tell me.

    Best regards,

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2018

      1. Very, especially early on (Jesus/Paul/Paul’s churches; see 1 Thess 4:13-18, e.g.);
      2. It began dying out near the end of the first century, when the end hadn’t come, but pockets of Christians still held to it (as they do today!)
      3. 2 Peter 2 seems to indicate that it was a source of mockery by outsiders.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 25, 2018

      It think it’s important to point out that Jews were still holding onto an imminent End Times at the very same time as these early Christians. Many of the leaders of the Jewish revolt claimed to be messianic figures heralding the End Times (Simeon bar Giora literally emerged out of the rubble of the Temple wearing royal purple). And following the ultimate destruction of the Temple, many Jews still hung onto this belief for at least the next 70 years, as they believed the Messiah would return to rebuild the Temple (or that the heavenly Temple would simply descend from the sky). And that faith culminated in the Bar Kokhba revolt almost exactly 70 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. (Seventy years is significant because: A, that’s roughly the time between the destruction of the First Temple and the start of the Second Temple; and B, it’s a jubilee period or great Sabbath, 7 X 10.) Therefore, it appears that messianic hopes started seriously dying down for the Jews roughly around the same time it did for Christians, after 140 CE. And each group seems to have hunkered down for a long winter, with periodic times of messianic fervor over the next 2,000 years. For instance, for Jews, there were messianic movements in the early 7th century (with Nehemiah ben Hushiel as the messianic figure), mid-17 century (Shabbatai Zvi as Messiah), and late 20th century (Menachem Schneerson as Messiah). And, of course, Christianity had countless messianic, doomsday manias in the past 2,000 years as well.

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    Carlflygt  February 24, 2018

    Hi Bart, it seems to me the problem of suffering can be solved by viewing life as a school. It’s a hard one, to be sure, but probably worth the training.

    For the view to make sense you need terrestrial reincarnation: reembodiment according to a karmic balance sheet developed as a consequence of experience in prior lives.

    If the guides in this school are hyperdimensional and limited in their own ways by various cosmic laws and circumstances, the resulting picture is a grand adventure, not a miserable accident.

    Good Christian sources here are Rudolf Steiner and the Urantia Book. Olaf Stapledon, whose philosophical genius and imagination are astounding, is a humanly scaled source with a nod or two to Jesus.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  February 25, 2018

      I agree with you about the importance of reincarnation, but I think it’s unwise to speculate about any incarnations other than one’s own. It’s frighteningly easy to “explain” suffering as due to the sufferer’s “bad karma.”

      I choose to go the other way. Whenever I find myself being judgmental, I have the sobering thought that in some past life, I may have done things as bad or worse. And the even more sobering thought that I may do things as bad or worse in *future* incarnations! I *hope* to make progress from life to life; but without knowing what circumstances we may be born into, we can never be sure.

      And I don’t assume “spirit guides,” etc. Only what we actually *know*: there’s hard evidence that reincarnation is a fact.

  13. Avatar
    Judith  February 24, 2018

    Your books and this blog made it possible for me to thoroughly appreciate, enjoy and learn from this podcast interview. Thank you for making it available to us.

  14. Avatar
    toejam  February 25, 2018

    Great conversation!

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 25, 2018

    I’d never known there was some sort of “atheist movement”! (And if there is, this self-described non-theist won’t be joining it. I’m a loner by temperament.)

    And I’d never known you to say you were concerned about “the problem of evil.” You’ve always said it was the problem of *suffering* that made you, ultimately, an agnostic/atheist.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Human suffering is the form of evil I’m most gripped by.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 25, 2018

    I don’t remember the exact wording now. But Dr. Shermer asked why you still hold Jesus in high regard, and you responded that it was because of his love and concern for others…or something like that.

    Doesn’t it bother you that Jesus apparently hoped and expected that in God’s “Kingdom,” *he* would be exalted as “King of the Jews”? Wouldn’t a truly admirable man have been humbly *grateful* for the trust he thought God had placed in him, and not sought a “reward”?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      Yes, that’s a part of his preaching I don’t appreciate. But both his message of love and the Christian (legendary) claim that he was willing to give everything for others — those are things I resonate with.

  17. Avatar
    nichael  February 25, 2018

    OK, I’ve got to ask this…

    Am I the only one who finds it (at the least) mildly insulting to the scholars who create great resources like the courses from the Teaching Company when a purported listener says things like “hammering through” the lectures at “1.5X – 2X” speed especially “while driving”?

    (This seems just a step above from that most humiliating of all teaching experiences, the undergrad who drags in after skipping a class and blithely asks “Did I miss anything?”)

    When do they do the “recommended” or other reading? (For example, I doubt that I’ve ever “taken” one Dr Ehrman’s courses where the bibliography hasn’t sent me off to find at least a one or two other texts.)

    Yeah, I know a lot of people listen to tapes like this while driving or working out. But when I listen to comments like Dr Shermer’s above I just find it bewildering to figure out how they think that they’re really learning very much about the topic at hand. It’s hard to escape the feeling that they’d save thems lives a lot of time and money if they just found a nice article on the topic in, say, the Sunday Magazine in their local paper.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      That was the first I heard of it! But Michael Shermer is an unusual person: his mind is a sponge and he picks things up remarkably fast, so I have no problem with someone like him doing it.

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  February 26, 2018

      Many people can absorb audible information much faster than written. Depending on the speaker, I often listen at 1.5x speeds especially since most apps adjust the tone so they don’t sound like Bugs Bunny. If a speaker is a rapid talker, I just leave it at normal speed. Our brains are pretty adaptable and absorbent. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

  18. Avatar
    Ehteshaam7  February 26, 2018

    Any way I can get you for an interview with my Channel Dr. Ehrman? I recently had a interview with Dr. Robert M Price which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOmPLmUUZxM

    • Bart
      Bart  February 26, 2018

      My publicist handles my interview requests; you would need to send me an email that I would forward to her.

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 26, 2018

    This is a question about your book, so I think it fits better here than in topics related to Peter and Paul.

    As I understand it, you think the *main* reason people converted to Christianity in those days was that they believed what they’d heard about astounding miracles.

    I’m trying to imagine myself in that era. Say I either hadn’t believed in *any* sort of survival after death, or had believed in an unappealing shadow world like the Jews’ Sheol.

    Then I heard that the Christians’ God was promising either a wonderful, eternal existence in “Heaven,” or – for evildoers or possibly all nonbelievers – an eternity of torment in “Hell.”

    It seems to me that the *only* reason I wouldn’t have rushed to convert because of *that* would be that I thought there was *no reason to believe it*. But in that case, I wouldn’t have seen a reason to believe the miracle stories, either!

    Can you think of a good reason why miracle stories were considered more believable? (Were people not being told about the afterlife promises? Or could they, conceivably, not have *cared*?)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2018

      I think they did indeed preach the afterlife. But the miracles are what made their claims about the power of God (after death) believable.

  20. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 26, 2018

    Another question: Is there any way of knowing how the existence of slavery affected the growth of Christianity? I can imagine some slaves being forced to become nominal Christians when their owners did; others being given a choice; and maybe, in some parts of the Empire, slaves being considered so “inferior” that their owners wouldn’t *permit* them to become Christians.

    And in some parts of the Empire, slaves could sometimes buy their freedom. In that case, might they have dropped a religion that had been forced on them?

    Come to think of it, I wonder how many people – of all kinds – converted to Christianity, but later got sick of it and dropped it? If, maybe, the nonoccurence of “miracles” in their own community caused them to write the whole thing off as a bunch of fables?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2018

      Unfortunately we have very little data to help us out on slavery and salvation. drop-outs: it happened some, of course, but the Christian communities were unusually strong and resilient in most times and palces, providing their members with benefits hard to find elsewhere. I talk about that a bit in my book.

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